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The state of global youth, digitally speaking: Research

There could be no better year-end wrap-up or gift for stakeholders in youth online safety worldwide than UNICEF’s just-released “State of the World’s Children…in a Digital World.” In it are the latest research, stories and commentaries from multiple international perspectives, including, to its credit, those of young people in 26 countries.

In addition to their views and practices, the report looks at safety for all children, including the most vulnerable – those “on the move” from places of conflict, “girls, children from poor households, children in communities with a limited understanding of different forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, children who are out of school, children with disabilities, children who suffer…mental health problems and children from marginalized groups” – in the context of their lives, opportunities and rights.

As a 17-year-old participant in Peru told UNICEF, “It is good to know that there are people who wish to listen to what adolescents have to say.”

The authors don’t only “wish to listen” or see participation as one of children’s human rights, they see listening to children as necessary to making policy that’s relevant and useful to them. And there is a sense of urgency in this:

“We must act quickly, and in collaboration with children of all walks of life,” wrote the authors of “Young and Online: Children’s Perspectives on Life in a Digital Age,” the companion report also released this week. “We must abandon both technophobic and techno-utopian orientations and acknowledge that the digital world is here to stay [and youth constitute a third of the world’s Internet users, they note elsewhere]. We must centre, and seek to balance, children’s provision, protection and participation rights in a world that often elides the needs and aspirations of children.”

Here are just 12 takeaways from this planet-size report:

  • The global digital divide. “Nearly one third [29%] of all youth worldwide – around 346 million 15–24 year-olds – are not online,” and 60% of African youth are not (compared to 4% in Europe). In developed countries, we often take for granted and even fear and vilify connected tech, so it provides healthy perspective to hear that, “to be unconnected in a digital world is to be deprived of new opportunities to learn, communicate and develop skills for the 21st century workplace.” And consider what connection means to them: “In stark contrast to claims that today’s adolescents are disengaged, participants in the study are concerned about issues in their communities ranging from the need to reduce violence to tackling climate change,” the “Young and Online” authors write. “Even in communities with limited access, adolescents believe digital technology has an important role to play in enabling them to seek and generate information, to contribute to awareness-raising, and to work with others to respond to real-world challenges.”
  • Risk in context: The report in no way minces words about “digital dangers,” the title of Chap. 3, but it doesn’t start with or over-focus on them. It urges us to consider the context. “All children who go online face some level of risk, but not all face the same level of risk…. For most children, underlying issues – such as depression or problems at home – have a greater impact on health and happiness than screen time…. Understanding why risk translates into actual harm for certain children, and not for others, is crucial. It opens our eyes to the underlying vulnerabilities in the child’s life that can place him or her at greater risk in the digital age. By better understanding and addressing these vulnerabilities, we can better protect children both online and offline.” This reinforces our findings in the comprehensive lit review of a 2008 national task force that not all youth are equally at risk online, those most vulnerable online are those most so offline, and a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any technology they use. It also reminds me of a 2013 essay by Prof. Sonia Livingstone about the difference between online risk and offline risk – and how “online risk” actually means “the risk of the risk that might result in harm.”
  • Believing is seeing: Online risks “are not always a function of the behaviour itself but are in some cases a reflection of how society perceives that behaviour,” the report’s authors write. “Adult perceptions of excessive use tend to drive the debate.”

  • “Agents in their own right”: To maximize children’s opportunities and safety, we must change the narrative about digital youth as potential victims in need of adult wisdom and protection, which minimizes their intelligence, capacity and agency. “Children around the world are thinking in sophisticated ways about the positive and negative implications of digital technology; for themselves and their communities, now and into the future,” write the “Young and Online” authors. “They offer valuable insights for ongoing research, policy and practice efforts in this field. To harness the benefits of digital technology into the future, the global research, policy and practice community must urgently engage children in ongoing dialogue about how to minimise the risks and maximise their opportunities online. And we must embed children, as agents in their own right, at the heart of decision making processes.”
  • Social literacy for safety: In its comprehensive lit review of 2008, our national task force at Harvard University found that harassment and cyberbullying were the most common risks youth face online – psychosocial risks – so a conclusion I reached at that time was that one of the primary risk prevention tools for online youth is social-emotional learning, or social literacy training. The authors of this report don’t say this explicitly, but – under Recommendation No. 4, “Teach digital literacy” – they do urge us to “strengthen the teaching of online tolerance and empathy.” Because this is social literacy, not digital literacy, I’d elevate this guidance to a whole separate category. Instead of “Teach digital literacy,” I’d recommend “Teach the three essential literacies of the digital age: digital literacy, media literacy and social literacy,” per the 2014 report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet.
  • The balance imperative: Championing children’s rights is hypocritical and will not move forward quickly (with their needed support) if we fail to honor their intelligence and rights of participation. “States and other duty bearers must seek to balance children’s provision, protection, and participation rights in the design and implementation of policy and interventions targeting children’s digital practices, and to assert children’s rights in policy and decision making processes relating to the digital more broadly,” the authors of the “Young and Online” companion report assert. I also suggest that children will not take adult efforts to honor their rights of protection or provision – instruction in digital safety and security – seriously if they’re not provided the agency and skills to protect and regulate themselves, their peers and their digital as well as physical communities.

  • Help them find their voices, views: “The ways children talk about their concerns often echo mainstream media narratives and the adult-centric concerns of online safety initiatives…potentially undermining their capacity to imagine, and articulate, the benefits digital media offers them in realising their rights,” the authors write. “It is critical that children be given space and encouraged to develop their own languages and ideas about the opportunities digital technology afford.”
  • Where responsibility lies. Here I offer a challenge: Might we consider a less adversarial, more collaborative approach to honoring children’s rights – a “stakeholder” model? If power-wielding is not the recommended approach to digital parenting, should it be in other parts of this global effort? The authors write, “The private sector – especially in the technology and telecommunications industries – has a special responsibility and unique ability to shape the impact of digital technology on children.” Certainly it does, but I suggest that policy makers and governments do as well. They’ll need to set an example in respecting children’s intelligence and agency and in honoring the full spectrum of their rights – including the right to be heard in policy making that affects them – if they expect other sectors, including the private sector, to do so. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which goes into effect next year, is an example of how the public sector failed to fulfill its responsibility toward youth. If we want companies to take more responsibility, an adversarial or purely regulatory approach will not be persuasive.
  • Screen timing not helpful: “Given the broader range of experiences that new media open up for young people, we shoulder a greater responsibility in guiding them to making wise choices. It’s not enough to say yes or no to specific devices or platforms or to clock screen time,” Prof. Mimi Ito at University of California, Irvine, writes in one of the report’s commentaries.
  • About “addiction”: It’s confirming to “hear” the authors say that use of this term is problematic and may be based on assumptions, hearsay or family friction over children’s “screen time”: “Labeling excessive screen use as an addiction may just be a proxy for expressing concerns about the impact disagreements about screen time are having on family dynamics.” They add that “applying clinical concepts to children’s everyday behaviour does not help support them in developing healthy screen time habits. And conflating the screen time debate with addiction can even be harmful” (e.g., kids in some countries being incarcerated in abusive “treatment” camps). Writing that so-called Internet addiction “is neither an accepted addiction nor is the internet its sole locus or cause,” Michael Rich, MD, uses the term “Problematic Interactive Media Use.” “In virtually all of the cases I’ve seen,” he writes, “the young person is struggling with underlying issues that range from attention deficit disorder (ADD) to social anxiety, depression or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).” Problematic technology use is often the symptom that urges us to find and heal underlying problems.
  • Digital parenting disparities. So much of children’s digital experiences has to do with their family and cultural contexts, and many don’t have the family conditions that so much Internet safety messaging has been aimed at. The report includes important related findings by researchers in more than 2 dozen countries showing that parental mediation works better than restriction (instead of limiting or banning, actively helping a child use tech wisely). But a restrictive style is normative in some cultural contexts – more authoritarian ones – putting children in those cultures at a comparative disadvantage, according to research that has discovered a global “digital parenting divide.”
  • Over-focus on parental consent: “Most regulatory approaches to protecting child privacy online [for example the U.S.’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and Europe’s GDPR] have been based on principles of parental consent,” the authors write. “This sort of approach is not without criticisms, including that it can impact children’s freedom of expression, access to information and development of digital literacy…. Requiring parental consent for any data sharing on the part of the children would in effect reduce their autonomy and freedom online, which runs counter to Convention on the Rights of the Child commitments that children be able to exercise agency based on their evolving capacities.” And they report that teens often know more about privacy and have more sophisticated practices than we give them credit for. [See also this on “Against raising the age limit for parental consent” in the “Parenting for a Digital Future” blog.]

These are inspiring reports. They model what they advocate for: respect for children’s intelligence as well as their rights. They also represent an unprecedented collection of the latest thinking and research on youth online safety and digital practices – from youth as well as adults all over the world. You can tell from the introduction to “Young and Online” (p. 19) that the authors themselves were inspired by the perspective and comments of those 490 children and teens gathered in workshops held by 26 UNICEF Country Offices and National Committees on nearly every continent. I certainly was.

The project’s core wisdom is reflected in a quote from political theorist Hannah Arendt in the companion report’s introduction:

It is in the very nature of the human condition that each new generation grows into an old world…. [We must] decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

The preparing is more about love and humanity than technology, I propose, just as always.

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